Former Colombian President Iván Duque discussed Latin America’s resurgent left wing and advocated for environmental action at the Harvard Kennedy School on Thursday afternoon.
The event, moderated by Paula J. Dobriansky, a former U.S. ambassador and a Belfer Center senior fellow, drew more than 100 Harvard affiliates to the Kennedy School’s Starr Auditorium where Duque spoke and took audience questions for more than 90 minutes.
Duque, who served as Colombia’s president from 2018 to 2022, left office earlier this summer after leftist presidential candidate and longtime rival Gustavo Petro won election on a platform of combating economic inequality. Latin America’s six largest economies will all be run by left-wing leaders once Brazilian President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva takes office on Jan. 1, cementing the region’s left-wing shift.
Duque, however, said he does not believe the current political arguments in the region are based on political ideology.
“For me, it is not a debate between right and left,” he said. “I think the debates that I see are between right and wrong, which is about the policies and how do you embrace the public policies and how the policies contribute to the benefits of society.”
“This is not the first time that we see a red Latin America,” Duque added.
Duque, who was elected to the presidency on a right-wing platform, said he is most worried about “demagogy decisions” that generate instability and uncertainty.
“I strongly believe that we can differentiate countries in Latin America today between two groups: those countries that are [led] by demagogues and those countries that are [led] by pedagogues,” Duque said. “The difference is that the pedagogy behind decisions is that there are a lot of unpopular decisions that have to be taken fiscally, socially, monetary — and they work.”
Duque offered praise for Lula, Brazil’s left-wing president-elect, despite their ideological differences.
“A lot of people have the expectation that Lula is going to be a radical,” he said. “At least when we look [at] what happened in the first Lula term, he was not a radical — he actually tried to appoint people that were very savvy on macroeconomic policy.”
But when asked in an interview with The Crimson after the event whether he would have preferred to work with Lula instead of outgoing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Duque replied, “I don’t have preferences,” noting his “very good relationship” with Bolsonaro.
Duque said Bolsonaro was also able to work across ideological differences, noting that the outgoing Brazilian president signed the Leticia Pact, an agreement to protect the Amazonian rainforest, with left-wing former Bolivian President Evo Morales.
“I built a lot of common policies with Jair Bolsonaro,” Duque added. “Now there’s a transition, and I just hope that Brazil remains being a strong voice for the environment in Latin America.”
Duque’s own tenure as president had been criticized by environmental activists, who protested his support for fracking, an oil extraction practice associated with environmental and health risks.
When asked about his support for fracking by a student during the Kennedy School event, Duque said he has "never been a champion of fracking" but that he wanted to emphasize science over politics while developing a fracking policy. During his administration, petroleum companies were allowed to start fracking projects as “scientific pilots” which the government could use to study the practice’s environmental impacts.
“But they have since stopped,” said Duque, referring to current Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s decision to halt fracking. “Why? Because again, politics was above science — and I don’t agree with that.”
—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.
—Staff writer Claire Yuan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @claireyuan33.